U.S. dealers to sell low speed EVs made at China’s Liuzhou Wuling. Biz model may work.
Liuzhou Wuling Motors Co. http://www.wulingauto.com.cn/en/index.aspx is breaking into the U.S. market with low-speed electric vehicles! And they are being sold through regular car dealerships, by established car dealers. I visited the first EcoCentre dealership, located in Irvine, CA, in October. I came away thinking it is a formula that might succeed. But it will still be a tough slog to make it work.
The Wuling name is familiar to many of you because of the SAIC-General Motors-Wuling joint venture www.sgmw.com.cn that produces minivans and a mini car under the SGMW badge and now cars under the Baojun name. Liuzhou Wuling also exists as a separate company; that is who Bill Fisher, the man who is spearheading the Wuling EV venture, deals with.
A bit of background on both Wuling and Fisher. I was the first foreign journalist to visit Wuling in 2001, when the SAIC/GM/Wuling venture was just being formed. I interviewed Shen Yang, then president of Liuzhou Wuling. I believe he is head of the group now. Even then, the GM influence was apparent on the plant floor. The production line was in an old building with a railway track outside so rail cars full of coal could bring power to the plant. But inside the plant was clean and organized, with red lines showing where non-production personnel and visitors should walk and a sign keeping track of days without a worker injury. Those old buildings and production lines have been replaced by new, fully modernized buildings and equipment now, says Fisher.
As for Bill Fisher, I met him in Shanghai about eight years ago. Fisher is CEO of AmAsia International, the Florida-based importer of the electric vehicles. I admit to some skepticism when I first met him about Fisher’s dream of importing Chinese vehicles. And he has had some dead-end ventures. But Bill stuck with it, which makes me respect him. In China, he works with Frank Chou, a retired GM executive and generally great guy.
Fisher’s idea this time is to import low-speed electric fleet vehicles produced at Wuling and sell those vehicles badged as the “Eco” brand through a chain of EcoCentre dealerships. The Eco brand products currently are the EcoVan, the EcoTruck, and the EcoE mini-car, three pure electric vehicles produced in China by Liuzhou Wuling. They range in price from $9,995 for the EcoE to $17,995 for the EcoVan. Target customers are municipalities, universities, medical schools and the like, all of which have large fleets of low-speed vehicles.
If you are from China or have spent time there, the EcoVan and the EcoTruck would look familiar. The EcoVan is based on the Wuling Sunshine van, only it has a 96-Volt battery instead of a gasoline-fueled drivetrain. The EcoTruck is based on Wuling’s D150 truck, says Fisher. The EcoE is a mini car that Fisher says he worked with Wuling to develop. Fisher says he has the western hemisphere distribution rights for these Wuling vehicles.
In turn, Fisher has appointed Ramon Alvarez as his representative in the U.S. Alvarez has trademarked the Eco brand name and is finding dealers to open EcoCentre dealerships http://www.ecocentre.us/EcoCentre/index.php to sell the Eco brand. Alvarez has been in the car business in California for 30 years. He owns Lincoln http://www.alvarezlm.com/ and Jaguar dealerships in Riverside, he is president of the state’s New Motor Vehicle Board, and he helped found an alliance of minority dealers. So he had some cred in the dealership world.
The vehicles I saw in Irvine, California were not the first Wuling vehicles Fisher has brought to the U.S. He started importing the vehicles some five years ago, and worked with several other distributors before starting the EcoCentre concept. Why didn’t he start out selling Wuling vehicles through established dealerships, I asked Fisher? “At the beginning, I don’t think our vehicles were prepared,” he said. “The drivetrains weren’t sophisticated enough to merit being sold in a dealership.” But Fisher worked with Wuling to make improvements such as replacing the 72 volt battery with a 96 volt battery, he says. Then he started lining up auto dealers here in the U.S. to open EcoCentres.
Alvarez sees gold in the inexpensive Wuling vehicles. “If you sell 30 of my cars a month you are going to make $100,000” a year, he said. That optimistic estimate relies on dealers tapping into their local communities, finding universities, municipalities, and others to buy the inexpensive EVs. “Not everybody can buy a Volt but a lot of people can buy a $9,995 car,” said Alvarez.
Denice Fladeboe Mock, president of the Fladeboe Automotive Group in Irvine, Calif., is the dealer principle at the first EcoCentre store, in Irvine. “I have always been involved in green things,” said Mock. “Ramon approached me and I liked his concept.” Mock is also selling another China-made product in her store –she is also a Coda www.codaautomotive.com dealer and the body of the Coda sedan is produced at Hafei Motors in China.
Mock has no worries about selling the Wuling electric vehicles. “Ramon has really done his research,” said Mock. She figures her location is a “perfect storm” for reaching fleet customers. The University of California Irvine is nearby, as are a medical center and numerous corporate campuses. But Mock doesn’t see sales immediately skyrocketing. She will do a lot of grassroots marketing, said Mock. “I don’t think the EV market will grow really fast. My job is to educate the public.”
Alvarez will open EcoCentre dealerships in some half dozen Southern California cities in the next year. A Glendale dealer just finished his training and will open in early December, says Alvarez. A Riverside dealer just signed on, and Alvarez says he is in discussion with dealers in several other cities. This is just the beginning of his master plan. “We plan to have conservatively 175 to 200 (dealerships) in a five year plan,” said Alvarez. And he isn’t stopping with small low-speed vehicles. Alvarez asked me if I knew of any Chinese companies making good quality medium-speed electric vehicles that he could sell in his stores.
I have some faith in Wuling’s quality. It has worked with GM for years, after alll. But I think Alvarez will have a harder time finding a high-quality medium-speed product in China. In any case, first he needs to concentrate finding dealers to sell the three models he has. I’ll check back with him — and the dealers — in a few months and report on the progress!